The dream died hard.
Cameroon, a nation of only 7 million, came within seven minutes Sunday night of reaching the semifinals of the World Cup.
Cameroon, a 500-1 shot going into the tournament, came as close as possible to scoring the most monumental upset in World Cup history.
The Indomitable Lions of Africa lost a match but gained the unqualified respect of the soccer-playing world.
On a hot, humid night at San Paolo Stadium in Naples, it took everything England had, and two penalty kicks awarded by the referee, for the Lions to be tamed, 3-2 in overtime, before 55,205.
If the 1990 World Cup has been dull so far, this match made up for it. It had everything: goals, excellent play by two teams of contrasting style, drama of the highest order and a fair share of old-fashioned heroics, especially by England sweeper Mark Wright.
And, after the final whistle, it was the Cameroon players, led by 38-year-old Roger Milla, who ran a lap of honor around the field, applauded all the while by their own, the Italian and, yes, even the English fans.
England’s coach, Bobby Robson, was unstinting in his praise for Cameroon, which led, 2-1, with less than seven minutes to play in regulation before falling to a pair penalty kicks by Gary Lineker, one in the 83rd minute and the other 15 minutes into extra time.
“It was a saga of a match,” Robson said, “an outstanding game of seesaw football. We were lucky to see it.
“At one time, I thought we were on the plane home tomorrow. We didn’t underestimate them at all, they’re a marvelous team and they’re a little unlucky to be out.”
It was not until the second half that the match blossomed. The first 45 minutes was a desultory affair in which England scored a well-taken, if unspectacular, goal and Cameroon tried to find its rhythm.
Gradually, once it realized that England need not be held in awe, Cameroon began to take the game to the English. English goalkeeper Peter Shilton had to rush out of his net to block a shot from Omam Biyik in the 12th minute, and a volley from Louis Mfede flew barely over the top of the net after an exchange of headers in the English penalty area.
Then, somewhat against the run of play, England scored. Defender Stuart Pearce overlapped down the left sideline, beat one player, and crossed the ball to the far post. There, a sharp downward header from David Platt, whose goal in overtime beat Belgium, left goalkeeper Thomas Nkono little chance.
Cameroon spirits drooped briefly, but the players regrouped and began to attack again--discovering or creating holes in the English defense.
“After we scored, they were the better team,” Robson said. “After they went in front, they were on top. We pulled it out of the fire. I don’t know how it happens sometimes. We showed a lot of courage and effort and industry.”
All commendable traits, to be sure, but the Cameroon players responded with skill and flair and daring. Where England hit long balls down the wings or into the goal area, Cameroon played one-touch soccer, with lots of movement off the ball, crafty back-heel passes, and the like--the style many of them learned in the French League.
Cameroon took command after Milla came on as a substitute in the second half. Having already scored four goals in the tournament, he seemed to inspire the team, which was playing without four starters due to suspension. Suddenly, Cameroon looked even more dangerous.
In the 61st minute, it tied the score. Milla was tripped in the penalty area, Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal Mendez pointed to the spot and Emmanuel Kunde made no mistake with the resulting kick.
Suddenly, Cameroon’s forwards were tearing the English defense to shreds and it was only fine goalkeeping by Shilton that kept them at bay. But even Shilton was helpless against Ebelle Ekeke’s shot in the 65th minute, and Cameroon took the lead, 2-1.
To Cameroon’s credit, it did not try to protect the lead, but kept attacking. To England’s credit, it did not fold but kept trying, even after Wright’s forehead was cut in a clash of heads with Milla.
The wound closed Wright’s eye completely and required seven stitches after the game. He played on, however, moving from defense to midfield as Robson reorganized his lineup, having already used both of his substitutes.
In the end, perseverance paid off when English pressure twice led the Cameroon defense to commit fouls, and the African team paid the penalty.
The two penalty goals gives Lineker three for the tournament and nine overall in World Cup play. He was the leading scorer in Mexico in 1986.
England will play West Germany in Turin Wednesday.
“We’re delighted to be in the semifinals,” Robson said. “After our first match (a 1-1 tie with Ireland) we were told to go home by the media, and here we are in the semifinals.”